There are few in traditional media that I typically end up feeling on the same page with. One of the few that I typically am is the Pioneer Press’ Charlie Walters. In 2018 when the Vikings started out struggling, especially on defense, it was he and I that said that unless things course corrected that Zimmer would be on the hot seat. We both got killed for it, but we weren’t wrong. It’s impossible to say, because the defense did at least go from bad to mediocre, but had things continued it’s only safe to assume Zimmer, or rather George Edwards, would’ve got the boot.
Now, Walters is getting heat for stating that as things stand right now, the 2020 Vikings are looking like a 5-win team, which is completely breaking from others in the season prediction game, with those in the betting realm currently having the Vikings’ odds at +2500 to win the Super Bowl 55. I might actually disagree with him a bit on this, but that’s because I think that five wins is a bit optimistic for a team that is on the precipice of a rebuild. To explain why I’m going to have to get into recent Vikings history.
The early ’10’s were an extremely up-and-down time for the Minnesota Vikings. They entered the decade in 2010 (because that’s how calendars work) with hopes of replicating the success that they had in 2009, a season that’ll live on, FDR-Style, in infamy in the hearts/minds and notebooks of thousands of psychiatrists notebooks around the upper-Midwest.
After a 2009 NFC Championship Game in which the Vikings were objectively robbed, the core of Vikings players flew down to Hattiesburg, MS, once again to beg the emotionally/physically gassed Brett Favre to give it one last go. In retrospect it was a bad idea, with the team doing what Vikings teams typically do, spending the year after a heartbreaking loss in the NFC Championship Game completely falling apart. We’d seen it before, but 2010 was exceptional.
The year ended with head coach Brad Childress being fired (despite being a year into an extension he earned during the amazing 2009 season), the team somehow not steam-rolling opponents despite having a Madden-esque roster that included Favre, Randy Moss, Percy Harvin, and a young Adrian Peterson.
Moss ended up being released because he didn’t like the catering the team ordered, which may be the most Vikings thing I’ve ever heard aside from the actual most Vikings thing of all time, the fact that the roof of the Metrodome also collapsed that season. All-in-all, they finished 6-10, with an interim head coach in former defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier taking over the reins for the next few seasons.
The following season, in 2011 (again, cause of… Calendars), was even worse. Donovan McNabb came to town and looked like a shell of his former self. The 3-13 record was the worst record of any Vikings team in my life and lead to the highest draft pick in team history.
That fourth overall pick could’ve been even higher, if not for an end of the season meaningless win by quarterback/wide receiver hybrid Joe Webb over the Philadelphia Eagles. That could have lead the team to drafting Andrew Luck or RGIII, something that could’ve changed the trajectory of the team and those QB’s (neither of which met their full potential thanks to injury-plagued careers).
Frazier somehow retained control of the team thanks to his relationship with the players on that team and because of the belief that he should be allowed to oversee the rebuilding of the team via the draft picks he was given (remember this later). That made some sense at the time as the team had given the reigns over to Rick Spielman, who was previously part of the “Triangle of Authority”, as general manager and because they had just drafted quarterback of the future in Christian Ponder.
It was thought that with the right quarterback to do through the air what Adrian Peterson was doing on the ground, that this team could perhaps reach the promised land and complete a mini-rebuild (remember this as well). The defense wasn’t half bad, either, and with the 2012 draft bringing the top pick in team history in “sure thing” Matt Kalil (as well as safety Harrison Smith, who was also taken in the first round of that same draft)… The team looked promising enough to keep Frazier around.
That theory seemed to be the right one, as the Vikings ended up going 10-6 in 2012 mostly on the back of Adrian Peterson, who nearly eclipsed the single-season rushing record that year and lead the Vikings to the playoffs. The Vikings ended up losing to the Packers 24-10 in that year’s Wild Card game, but they still felt like a team that was a few positions away from putting together something special.
When you added the three-year span, from 2012-2014, where the team had SEVEN first-round picks (thanks to some amazing wheeling and dealing from general manager Rick Spielman), and it wasn’t hard to see why people were excited about the future of the Vikings franchise. Then 2013 happened.
The 2013 Vikings defense was AWFUL, as was the play of the recently added “QB of the Future” in Matt Cassell (the Jimmy Garoppolo of his day). The defense was so bad that it was only four points shy of allowing the most points of ANY Vikings defense ever (just shy of the 1984 Vikings team).
Enter Mike Zimmer, who came inherited a Vikings team that had a ton of young talent on defense. Zimmer immediately seemed like the right pick as while he “only” improved the wins and losses by two games (going 7-9 vs. the 5-10-1 record the year prior), the defense improved markedly and things at least seemed to be going in the right direction.
The Vikings made the playoffs in Zimmer’s second year, again thanks to the otherworldly talents of Adrian Peterson, and were a missed 27-yard Blair Walsh field goal away from beating what was then called the “Best Wild Card Team” of all time in the Seattle Seahawks on a frigid day at TCF Bank Stadium.
The 2016 season started with another Vikings-ism, as Teddy Bridgewater tore his ACL on the 30th of August forcing the team to scramble to find his replacement right before the season began. They ended up trading a first-round pick for Eagles back-up QB Sam Bradford, who seemed to be the right decision as the team went into their Bye week undefeated at 5-0. However, the offensive line collapsed and the teams’ fortunes followed suit. They finished the season 3-8 and missed the playoffs.
It seemed like the team had finally learned their lesson with the line, as they hadn’t drafted any offensive lineman (before the 4th-round) since Matt Kalil in 2012. They used the subsequent draft to bring in Pat Elflein in the third-round and Danny Isidora in the fifth, but as we’ve seen in recent years their too little too late approach (which includes moving players around in lieu of drafting/signing replacements (ie Mike Remmers to right guard, TJ Clemmings to … Every position known to man, Joe Berger from center to right guard, etc.)) has kneecapped this team time-and-time again.
We all know what happened in 2017, but not many people talk about why that happened. The lack of depth on the offensive line was apparent after they had to, again, reshuffle players going into the playoffs as they’d had injuries to nearly every position on the line. Just let the beginning of this article from the Pioneer Press from the 31st of December of 2017 explain:
Despite that, the Vikings made it to the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles and while the story from that game (that is seared into the memory of every Vikings fan a la the 2009 NFCCG) was and is the collapse of Zimmer’s defense, the reality is that the momentum in that game shifted after not one, but two offensive turnovers that could be directly blamed on the offensive line.
You’d think that the powers that be would’ve got the message that they needed to invest everything in the offensive line at this point. But, yeah… No. Whenever this team has reached a point where you think the only sane option is to put everything into the line, they instead do the bare minimum and in the process end up essentially killing any depth or promise the line may have had.
Say what you will about Alex Boone and the fact that he came into his final season with the Vikings out of shape, but releasing him did nothing but hurt the line. Moving Remmers to guard instead of drafting a right guard was obviously a mistake, even with Brian O’Neill being the only promising part of the current offensive line. Moving Pat Elflein? Same thing, as all they did, was create a need at left guard by signing Garrett Bradbury. Cutting Josh Kline? Who alongside O’Neill opened up gigantic holes for Dalvin Cook to run though and thus was the only promising aspect of an otherwise terrible line in 2019? Same thing.
So, when I see articles like the one from the Pioneer Press’ Charlie Walters that state that the 2020 Vikings are looking like a 5-win team in 2020? I have to look back at the recent history of this team.
If the 2019 Vikings were a 10-6 team, what about a team that is currently looking for three starting defensive lineman/corners (including the nickel back which is essentially a starting position in today’s NFL)/offensive lineman, perhaps a safety, a second-and-third wide receiver, and more?
2018/19, in retrospect, feels more like 2010 to me than anything else. When Zimmer came to town he had a glut of talent at each position, but that talent came from multiple drafts before he was here where the team had five first-round picks (with his first season as the head coach also had two first-round picks) BEFORE he took over the head coaching gig.
So, sure, the Vikings have a ton of draft picks this year. But, the promising core of players that Zimmer had when he took over the team isn’t really there. We’re arguably weaker on paper now than we have been at any point, outside of the continuity that exists at the quarterback/running back positions.
But again, if they “only” had 10 wins in 2019, how should we expect them to do anything but get half of that in 2020? Like it or not, agree with it or not, this team is in the midst of a rebuild and even if the team ends up hitting with every draft pick they have this year it’s going to take more than one season for things to acclimate. How do I know that?
Because we’ve already seen it. Even with his seasons (plural) of experience in the NFL, it took Xavier Rhodes more seasons (plural) to acclimate to Zimmer’s system. The same thing went for $14-million-dollar-man Trae Waynes. For Mackenzie Alexander. So, you can say that the moves that the team has made this off-season (or haven’t made) were the right ones, but you can’t ignore that, then, it’s going to take time for this team to right the ship.
Because of that, I think it’s safe to say that the five-win theory that Walters has written about is the best-case scenario for this team. As, if Zimmer went 7-9 in his first season with a core on defense that was still young and acclimating to his system, then a unit with youth everywhere learning the same or a similar system will most likely struggle to win five games.
If you think I’m being pessimistic, just look at what this team has done with the patchwork line it’s had (despite having tremendous (on paper) talent at nearly every other position). Now, with Zimmer and Spielman having control over an incredibly important draft, one that harkens back to the drafts of 2012-14 (only one of which Zimmer had control over), it’s hard to think that they’ll deviate from what they’ve done time and time again, and that invests in a defense that never reaches it’s full potential while ignoring the offense and offensive line until it’s too late.
Well, too late was last season. And I went through the history of the team this past decade to prove a point, that point being that Zimmer was given a TREMENDOUS shot (again with seven first-round picks in three years) to do something special. So, why are we giving him another shot? Spielman is culpable as well, but he was able to amass draft picks and put together an amazing (on paper) roster. So, I can at least see why keeping him around for another draft where they have more than one first-rounder and 12 total picks. But Zimmer? What has he done to prove that he deserves this shot? Why keep him around?
Because they’re the Vikings. So, I retract my statement above, THIS will be the most Vikings thing of all time.